“A plethora of people have written about Woody Allen”, John Lahr said “and they either like him or dislike him. But no one has yet managed, I think, to interpret him.” Woody Allen has been revered as one of the brilliant artists of the twentieth century and at the same time called a pervert. His works have been called jokes but also masterpieces. Many critics have tried to explain why Allen writes the things he writes but not one has had success. The drive and brilliance of Allen has not been understood yet. Seeing his movies gives us two opposing views. One is the screwball comedian who is obsessed with death and sex while the other is the serious artist commenting on and criticizing our society. The latter view is more difficult to grasp but is nonetheless there. Through different film techniques Allen mocks our society and film industry without us even realizing. His most widely used technique to do this is the film within a film. In movies such as The Purple Rose of Cairo, Play It Again Sam and Hannah and Her Sisters Allen uses this technique to show us his opinion on a particular subject, and also uses it as a driving force behind his movies.
The most notable use of film within a film in Allen?s movies occurs in, The Purple Rose of Cairo. The time is The Depression and the scene a small town. Cecilia (Mia Farrow) is the central figure in the movie. She is married to an abusive gambler and heavy drinker. To cope and escape her problems, Cecilia constantly goes to a nearby movie theater called The Jewel. There she spends hours on end watching movies, sometimes the same one more than three times. When she gets fired one day from her job, she goes to The Jewel and watches a movie called The Purple Rose of Cairo “at least five times” (Blake 117). On her fifth time watching the movie, Tom Baxter (Jeff Daniels) jumps out from the movie and enters the theater telling Cecilia that he has noted her faithful presence and is attracted to her. As they leave the theater together, the actors in the movie aimlessly wonder around bewildered by what had just transpired. Deeply concerned is the real life actor of Tom Baxter, Gil Shephard because this misfortune could “wreck his blossoming career”(Kauffmann 37). To add to the trouble, other cities have reported that the Baxter character has stepped out of The Purple Rose of Cairo in various theaters and has disappeared.
Why would Woody Allen create such a unrealistic movie critics called “the most innovative single film during his period of startling originality”? (Blake 116) Well, in his own words he wanted to show, “the difference between fantasy and reality and how seductive fantasy is and how, unfortunately, we must live with reality, and how painful that can be” (Girgus 70). In making The Purple Rose of Cairo, Allen wanted to show us the way film influences our opinion of real life experiences. This is portrayed through one of Allen?s major themes: “the sovereignty of fantasy even in the humblest”. (Kauffmann 38). Cecilia?s desire and imagination are so strong that they penetrate the boundary of fantasy and reality to withdraw Tom Baxter from his cinematic world into our real one. “Like a modern-day Pinocchio, Tom is brought to life by the loneliness and suffering of another” (Lee 178). Her imagination is so strong that when Baxter comes out from the screen, he comes out complete, affecting everyone. He doesn?t come out as some ghost leaving his shell on the screen. Nor can only Cecilia hear or see him. More, her fantasy affects the lives of other people including the audience, the manager, the producer and the original actor of the film role.
Even more than fantasy, Allen focuses on the power of movies to create an escape from the real world. It is no wonder Allen picked one of the hardest times to live in American history as a setting to the movie. The power of movies, Allen is saying, is so powerful that it can obliterate the pain associated with something as distressing as The Great Depression, even if only temporarily. As a child, Allen would cut school and spend hours in the movie house lost in the magical world of movies.
?I lived in Brooklyn, and on these hot, hazy summer days when it was humid andy you couldn?t move and nobody had anything to do, there were thousands of movie houses around, and you could walk in for 25 cents. Suddenly it was cool and air-conditioned and dark, and there was candy and popcorn. You could sit down and there would be two features. And you would see pirates and you would be on the sea. And then you would be in a penthouse in Manhattan with beautiful people. The next day you?d go to another movie house, and you?d be in a battle with the Nazis and in the second feature you?d be together with the Marx Brothers. It was just a total, total joy! The greatest kind of tranquilizer and embalmment you could think of. (Bjorkman 149)
Cecilia parallels this in The Purple Rose of Cairo. We constantly see her trying to find an extra minute to sneak into the theater. At work, she is screamed at by the customers and her boss because she is either daydreaming or fantasizing about movies with her sister . We get the sense that work is an impediment to her movie going. “She is an addict using Hollywood as a substitute for her miserable life” (Girgus 75).
At the theater, Cecilia thoroughly concentrates on the task at hand, the movie. Mesmerized by the movie, only the motion of her hand from her popcorn basket to her mouth gives us evidence that she is still alive. The movie theater is a sanctuary for her not only because it?s an escape but also because it gives her hope (Bjorkman 51). When Cecilia sat at the movies, she did not consider what happens to be fictional. On the contrary, she considered movies as the life of other people, luckier people, people that live far from her poor hometown in New Jersey. This nativity explains her decision at the end by choosing Gil Sheperd over Tom Baxter. By picking reality over fiction, she expected to live with a man in reality, though a fictional life.
This new choice brings up another theme in The Purple Rose of Cairo, fiction versus reality. Not only does this theme require that the two mediums coexist but also that they oppose and contest each other. Cecilia wants to live in the fantasy world while Tom wants to come to the real world. When Tom Baxter comes off the screen, he acts with the same personality as he does in the movie. This makes Tom a naive, childlike character. In a scene when Gil Shepard confronts Tom, Tom expresses his opinion about realism. “I don?t want to be in film anymore, I love Cecilia”. When Cecilia reciprocates Tom?s feelings, Gil responds to Cecilia, “How can you love him, he?s not real.” “I can learn to be real”, Tom says, defending himself. “You can?t learn to be real”, Gil Shepard says, “like you can?t learn to be a midget. Some of us are real, some are not.”
Like Tom, Cecilia dreams of being on the other side of the screen. At one point, Tom decides to take her on a date into the movie with him. “The first words that come out of her mouth as she enters the screen are, “I feel like I?m walking on fluffy air.” The plot of the inner movie resumes, temporarily, with Cecilia now a part of it. But shortly after Cecilia enters, Tom decides to forget about the plot and take her for a night on the town. At the end of the night, while they?re at Tom?s apartment, Gil shows up at The Jewel. Cecilia exits the movie world to join Gil while Tom follows her. Gil proclaims something new to Cecilia: he has fallen in love with her. Now Cecilia is confused. A week ago, she led a loveless life but now, two men love her, “and they?re both the same person” (Cecilia, The Purple Rose of Cairo). Everyone, including the movie cast, agree that Cecilia must choose either Gil or Tom. Tom says, “I?m honest, dependable, courageous, romantic and a great kisser.” Gil simply responds, “Yeah, but I?m real.” Cecilia sides with the latter. She now understands that she does not belong in the movie world just as Tom does not belong in the real one. She comforts Tom by saying, “In your world, things have a way of working out right.” At those words, Tom sadly stumbles into the movie while Cecilia goes packing for Hollywood. On her return, she finds that Gil left without her. Betrayed, she goes back to her abusive life and relationship. The final betrayal is Woody?s comment on his view of reality.
I think what it boils down to, really, is that I hate reality. And, you know, unfortunately it?s the only place where we can get a good steak dinner. It?s very seductive, fantasy, but we can?t live there permanently. (Bjorkman 50)
The last and most intriguing point that Allen wants us to grasp is hard to detect and yet the whole movie is based on it. It is the mystical fact that an actor?s performance in a film, with his personality and voice, has a life completely independent of the actor?s own personality and voice that gave it being (Kauffmann 38). This is true with no other art except TV, which is basically film itself. The idea of a character rebelling against and threatening his creator, who is himself identical in every physical way, is more appalling than any other science fiction story of look alike humanoids because the mystery is part of our lives and around us everyday.
The first sign of an actor having a distinct personality is when Tom Baxter talks to Cecilia. Seeing the movie five times, Cecilia know what the order of events should be. That is why she is completely surprised when Tom looks up from the screen and looks at her. “My god, you must really like this picture. You?ve been here all day and I?ve seen you here at least twice before. This is the fifth time you?re seeing this movie.” At this moment, we realize that Tom has watched Cecilia throughout his performances and this fact is later reassured to us when Tom tells Cecilia he has observed her from the corner of his eye. During the next scene, Tom complains to Cecilia that he is hungry and in response, Cecilia give him a bag of popcorn. “So that?s what popcorn tastes like”, says Tom. “I?ve been watching people eat it for all those performances. They rattle those bags. That really annoys me.” This is a very important quote for it tells us that not only can Tom see the audience, he can also hear them. Even though Tom is the first one to show his personality, he?s not the only one.
The other characters in the movie also come to life although they can?t escape their world. When Tom leaves the screen, the characters are left to bicker and fight. They develop individual personalities and carry on conversation with the audience. More, when Cecilia enters the movie and goes to dinner with Tom and his friends, the Maitre De and the woman Tom is supposed to marry recognize that Cecilia is not in the plot. When Tom takes Cecilia out on the town and announces to the other characters that they don?t have to follow the plot anymore, the Maitre De yells for the band to “hit it” and starts tap dancing across the floor. He explains that it has always been his ambition to dance and not to wait on people. This ambition certainly demonstrates that the Maitre De has a very unique personality that is different from the character he portrays.
The greatest testament to this final theme occurs in a scene where the movie manager is talking to the characters onscreen. As the characters on the screen start fighting about who has a more important role, someone in the audience suggest to the manager that he just turn the projector off. A wild look crosses the character?s faces. One remarks, “No, don?t turn the projector off. It gets black and we disappear? You don?t understand what it?s like to disappear, to be nothing, to be annihilated. Don?t turn the projector off.” Here, Woody is equating fictional figures with one of life?s ultimate events, death. Of course if the characters were totally fictional, as we first thought of them to be, they would be in a sense never alive so they could not worry about death. Giving the characters a fear of death provides them with a quality that every person on this planet has and that, in turn, makes them real.
Allen?s next work in which he uses the film within a film technique is the play/movie Play It Again, Sam in which he explores, “the ambivalent effect of film upon our self-conception” (Yacowar 49). The play has similarities to Casablanca in that it is about personal sacrifice and “an attempt to understand and relieve lost opportunities” (Pogel 48). Allan Felix (Woody Allen) is a film critic going though a recent divorce from Nancy (Susan Anspach). He strongly relies on his screen idol, Humphrey Bogart (Jerry Lacy) for advice and an image to follow. Like Cecilia, he is caught between two extremes. One is the degrading life prompted by his wife while the other a romanticized self image forced on by Bogart.
The film begins without credits in the middle of the final scene from Casablanca. Rick (Humphrey Bogart) is talking to Ilsa (Ingrid Bergman). As the parameters of the screen shrink, we realize that we are watching the movie with Felix. As the light goes on, Felix is sitting by himself in the middle of the theater as we see the other people in the theater yawn, stretch and begin to get up. Next we see Felix blow air out of his mouth which signals his reluctance to leave the world of fantasy (Lee 26).
Felix has two friends that he relies on, Linda and Dick. The two are married and try to setup Felix with every eligible girl they know. Of course Felix fails to court anybody because the whole time he tries to be too much like Bogart (Brode 121). The only woman Felix is himself around is Linda. As Dick spends more and more time at work, so do Linda and Allan with each other. Their relationship progresses until finally, Allan tells Linda that he is in love with her. Although Linda has the same feelings, she is reluctant to leave her husband because “he is dependent on me and in some mysterious way I am on him” (Fox 60). In the final airport scene, Linda tells Allan her feelings and her decision to stay with her husband. Even though Allan got rejected by the only woman around whom he could be himself, he becomes more independent and learns that to be ourselves, we must also learn to have a little Bogart in each of us.
The themes of appearance versus reality, self-deception versus authenticity, and watching versus doing are readily established for the remainder of the film. Felix tells himself as he is leaving the theater in the beginning, “Who am I kidding? I?m not like that. I never was, I never will be. That?s strictly the movies.” The next scene shows Felix lying in his bed beneath a huge poster from Bogart?s movie, Across the Pacific. He is complaining to himself how depressed he is. He remembers Nancy telling him, “You like movies because you?re one of life?s great watchers. I?m not like that. I?m a doer. I want to live. I want to participate”. Nancy in fact is very accurate about her criticism. As a film critic, it symbolizes Allan being an observer rather than a doer.
As an observer, Allan holds himself to standards he can?t live up to. He constantly judges his actions and success by comparing himself to the characters from the movies he loves. Much of the film?s humor comes from watching the attempts of Allan to act as he imagines Bogart would in the situations he encounters. Allan goes to such extremes as to drink bourbon, which he can?t stand, and to call women “dames”, a derogatory term in the setting of 1970 San Francisco. Later in the movie, as Allan regains his self-confidence by gaining Linda?s love and respect, he is more critical of Bogart?s advice and more willing to show the draw backs of Bogart?s style.
The final movie in which Allen uses film as a major part is Hannah and Her Sisters. The movie is based on three sisters and among other characters, Mickey Sachs (Woody Allen). Mickey is a TV producer who?s obsession with death drives him to search desperately for life?s meaning. After failing to find the meaning in life or, “at least a god” (Lee 210), Mickey decides to shoot himself. In his apartment, with a gun pointing to his head, Mickey tries one last time to find a god. After conjuring thoughts that there might be a god, he rejects the ideas saying he has to be certain. He suddenly pulls the trigger and miraculously, the bullet hits a mirror. His explanation for this is that the perspiration from his forehead caused the muzzle to slip. This miracle could be interpreted as God?s answer to Mickey?s demand of proof (Spignesi 73).
Scared, Mickey runs to the street to get some fresh air. He wonders around aimlessly through the streets until he?s exhausted. Just as he is about to head home, he goes into a movie to sit down and rest. Hear, he sees the Marx Brothers in Duck Soup and receives his “salvation and enlightenment in one” (Lee 210). He goes home with a new look on life and finds his wife, who was infertile before, pregnant.
It is little wonder that Allen chooses his place of worship as the savior of Mickey?s life. Allen is equating movies with the highest order on earth, life. Allen firmly believes that life can be complemented and balanced with movies. If a movie can make you cry, why can?t it also make you do the opposite, uplift you. If a movie can make you grieve why can?t it also make a person exuberant. The power of movies is unlimited and it helps save Mickey?s life.
Now the question arises as to why Allen specifically uses the “film within a film technique”. There are hundreds of others, more popular techniques to use when making movies. Commenting on our society can be done in so many other ways. The reason Allen specifically uses this technique is that Allan is a major film buff. Granted he is in the business of movies and he is suppose to enjoy them. But Allen is a little more. That is what sets great directors from the mediocre. This is the man that says the best part about film-making is coming up with the idea. And as the movie is made and produced, it is destroyed, piece by piece, soiling the original pure thought. Allen?s only goal, after gradual destruction “it to make it breath”. This is also the man that said he would love to be extremely wealthy but will do nothing to achieve that goal. “If somebody comes along and asks me to act in a movie and offers me a lot of money and it?s a silly movie, I will act in it. I don?t care about that. But in my own work, I?ll never do anything for money. In an industry that is dominated with cash, it?s nice to know there still are people who consider it an art.
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